A Muse's Muse Interview with Singer/Songwriter,
conducted by: Jodi Krangle
Shannon Cutts is a singer/songwriter with a penchant for upbeat lyrics unveiling the beautiful simplicity of God’s love at work in our lives. Although her songs and signature pop sound have been tagged as having ‘crossover appeal’, Shannon simply views music as ‘what she does’. “Music is healing – it is a tie that binds all of us together”, Shannon says. “Music is a trusted universal language that can reach into places where words alone cannot go, bringing healing, recovery, joy and love in with it. It is the most powerful and beautiful language I know, and I am privileged to take part in this divine conversation.”
Question: What's your background in music? Is your family musical? Did you grow up with it or was it something you discovered?
My family is verrrrryyyy musical. I think I started to talk and sing at the same time. My parents play guitar, my bro plays awesome fiddle, and when I was 8 my parents made a 'deal' (at least that's what they told me it was) with me that if I'd chip in 25 bucks they'd buy me a piano. All I could figure was 'wow - that's pretty cheap for the biggest piece of furniture I've ever owned!' At no time did they explain to me about lessons, or daily practice. They apprenticed me to a towering, terrifying giant of a classical piano teacher, and while I never really managed to learn to read music, I did get pretty good at learning by ear since the music she was giving me interested me so little I never practiced it at all. All I did was sit at the piano and noodle around - I'd play a few bars of Bach or whatever it was that week and then realize that reading music was boring and I could come up with my own ending. So then I'd go to the lesson, piece still unlearned, and ask the teacher if she could 'just play it for me once so I can remember how it goes', and I'd rattle it off back to her. And week after week, for 4 years, that's how it went. So while I turned into a pretty good off-the-cuff songwriter, I wouldn't say I have much Bach in my repertoire. :)
Question: How did you first get involved in music professionally?
My first 'professional' foray into music performance was actually singing lead and playing mandolin (which I was handed when I was 10 - another long story!) in my family's bluegrass band. I've been on stage ever since. Interestingly enough, while I was always aware I 'had talent', it took me a lot longer to find my own heart and wings and learn to love what I seemed to be naturally good at. 'Love' for me, with music, came when the music proved its power and purpose in my life by bringing me back from a slow suicide from anorexia and bulimia. I wrote songs, not even knowing why or where they were coming from or really how I was writing them - every day another song would come to me and I would write it down - and later I realized that that was the one thing I loved enough to keep fighting to recover. It's what I now call the "Key To Life" - that one thing an anorexic/bulimic cares more about than her disease. The music literally healed me, and that's why I feel called to share it with others now, because I believe that if the songs could heal me, then they can heal others who need them as well.
Question: How long have you been writing songs? Which song of yours do you consider your most successful and why?
I have been writing songs since I was 8 years old. My first song was co-written with my Dad, and we called it “Babbling Brook & Brave Buffalo” in honor of our Cherokee heritage. I wrote it on the piano and Dad helped me note it out on sheet music. When I realized that there was a way to make my tortuous theory studies in early Bach bearable by trying my hand at ‘re-writing’ them by ear, I was hooked! A songwriter was born…and to me writing over the years has become like opening up a direct channel of communication to God – calling Him up on the phone and having Him answer every time. It has been an amazing constant source of peace, inspiration, hope, joy and love in my life.
The songs that have been most ‘successful’ to me are the ones that seem to speak into the common life experiences we share. For one person a song will be about anorexia, for another the same song will be about adoption (I’ve had both of these comments and many more about my song ‘Hold Me Teach Me’)…..each person can find what they need to feel connected, heard, validated and healed in the same song by experiencing it in a unique way that is relevant for them. I do think success sometimes is simply found in the writing of the song – perservering when the topic is difficult and personal or the Muse is playing hide-and-seek, continuing to trust the gift when all that comes out seems disjointed and without meaning – often my most appealing songs (like Lift Me Up) came out under a hailstorm of mental criticism that was trying to sabotage me during the writing process. When I first wrote that song I was in the midst of a mental/writing block, and I just couldn’t stop my mind from berating myself for everything that would come out while I was writing the verses. Then the chorus popped out, and I thought ‘Wow!’ Now THAT is a message….talk about God speaking back to us. “Oh, Lift Me Up, my God, such a mighty awesome God, oh let me sing Your praise, in my weakness I am saved….’ I was amazed at how He used my willingness and perserverance in continuing to try to write the song to show me Who is really writing it anyway and where my help will come from to finish it – to make something out of nothing.
And I think this touches on another universal theme – no matter whether it’s writing or something else that we are trying to accomplish, we are not alone. We always have help and support. Everyone can relate to that in some way, even if it’s not from a spiritual perspective but simply from a relationship perspective. Now, I do think there is another kind of success that comes from writing songs that are more specific, but are self-healing and illuminating and move us forward in our growth and knowledge. And those songs can have their own kind of appeal to specific audiences – my song “Tangled Up” indirectly arose from my fascination with nature and my battle to recover from anorexia and bulimia. Talk about two unrelated topics that each only appeal to a small select group of people! But anorexia is only one kind of issue people are recovering from, so even though it took me a lot to recover from it and the song is very personal to me, people recovering from alcoholism, narcotics abuse, codependency, homelessness, illness, recovery from life itself….they can all relate to the song in their own way. And the image Tangled Up presents of the spider’s dependence on his web for food and survival and shelter – and the irony that the web he needs originates from inside himself – this points us back to our connection.
Question: As an indie musician, you need to do a lot of your promotion on your own. What sorts of things have you done to promote your music? What has worked and what hasn't?
Boy is that a good question! You are so right that an indie relies on their own manpower to do 90% of promotion for their career, especially when they are just starting out. It is all about identifying your target audience, knowing what you have to offer, believing in yourself, and then sharing those three things with others. I do a lot through what I call ‘cooperative marketing’ – where maybe I book for a friend of mine and then someone else promotes me – in my personal experience I have found it easier to promote someone else, and often more effective, and then allow someone else to book me in return. But I also do a lot of self-promotion in many different ways and it is not always possible to co-op bookings. The internet is a huge vehicle for gaining exposure, and I continue to make sure that Modern Day Eve has visibility on all the major e-commerce and music sites where listeners can hear the music and also purchase copies. I am always looking for opportunities to receive radio airplay, CD reviews and interviews so that my target audience is aware that I exist! For instance, I am a recovered anorexic and bulimic – I want other recovering anorexics, bulimics and their families to know about my story and my music. I want to reach out to singles, because I am a young single and can really relate to what singles go through. I can relate to women’s groups – of pretty much any age – with issues that only women really face. These are some of the groups in my ‘target audience’, and my pre-work before beginning self-promotion has been to identify what my core ‘platform’ to each will be, and then the more universal offerings I can make that tie these groups back into society as a whole. My overarching goal is to build community, ease loneliness, increase joy and hope, foster connectedness, share inspirational music and stories, and be a resource and a friend to the communities that have me out to minister.
Now, more practical aspects of self-promotion – indies need a good, representative press kit. This means that the kit IS you to people who are just meeting you and considering bringing you out to perform so make sure it represents you well! Make sure your kit tells your story well, and that all the relevant information is included (contact information, music samples, biography, venues & events where you’ve performed already, testimonials, press & news, a good photo….) The press kit can be a hard copy, or increasingly e-kits are becoming popular and are certainly cheaper to mail and reproduce. My e-kit has posters venues can print out and use to market me several weeks before I am scheduled to appear. It has a fill-in-the-blanks press release that can be faxed to local media with all the relevant information. It has all of the above-listed items as well – it can answer practically any question anyone would ever want to ask about Shannon. Indies need a strong work ethic – this is a tough business and it is relentless. Even after you ‘make it’ (which everyone defines differently) you cannot rest on that but have to keep seeking new ways to expand and reach listeners. I’ll tell you what hasn’t worked for me up until now – aligning with a manager or booking agent. I found I had to force myself to learn enough about each aspect of the business – from management to booking to radio promotion to publicity to sound to, well, you name it – to consider myself qualified to choose a replacement for myself in any of these areas when the time came! And I sure got a sense of what I am and am not gifted in – but ignorant willingness to at least try will get an indie a whole lot further than sitting at home waiting for someone else, who isn’t as motivated and doesn’t believe in you as much as you do, to do it for you. The other thing that hasn’t worked, and will never work, is trying to get venues who do not book my kind of music to book me. Same goes for magazines, newspapers, e-zines, radio stations, and any number of agents, promoters, record labels and managers. Unless they are working already in your genre of music, my advice would be don’t bother, unless you’re simply approaching them for a referral to someone who does work in your area. Indies have to do a lot in a lot of different areas which means their time and their money is spread pretty thin. Don’t overextend – focus on one region or even one city – build a presence there, and then expand. Don’t ask yourself to do more, be more, than any one person possibly can. And don’t be too hard on yourself if it seems to be taking longer than it should. If you are not gentle, kind, patient and loving with yourself, no one else will be. Go into it with the understanding that for the most part this business, much as it might appear to the contrary, takes time. Sometimes just ‘hanging out’ for long enough.
But always take time for yourself each week. An indie is a one-man/one-woman band. An indie is a lot things to a lot of people, and has only him or herself to fall back on. If you do not MAKE time to recharge and rest, there is no one else around who will do it for you, and trust me, when burnout hits, it is not easy to come back from. Do not allow yourself to get to that point. 90% of self-management is just that – SELF management. Manage yourself well, and wisely, with compassion and faith and respect, and you will have a career that can potentially span a lifetime.
Question: That's some great advice! Have any particular books, magazines or resources really helped you along the way? Any that you'd recommend to other independent musicians and/or songwriters?
Well, it is easy to get wrapped up in reading about the future of this, the fate of that….there are so many magazines and books out there, and so many of them are really great, too. And I try to keep up with my reading, but it is hard to read and DO – you know? So at some point the reading becomes just a foundation for life, for hard-knocks (if necessary) experience, for the hands-on trial and error of taking a step, even if it’s not the step you thought it was, or not the step you wanted to take, or not the step that took you where you thought it would or where you wanted to go.
Having said that, anything with current contact information in it is great for me – The Indie Bible, the online resources at CDBaby.com, the GMA (Gospel Music Association) Networking Guide, and there’s a magazine that comes out every so often – can’t remember the name of it – that has resources nationwide for the touring musician – you can find it in most newsstands. BillBoard puts it out I think? It has radio stations, TV stations, print media contacts, booking and publicity agents, lots of stuff for different areas of the country. So that is helpful.
But even backing up further than that – there is fundamental reading that should be done so you can set goals for yourself as a working musician. Books can help you determine where you want to go and how feasible it is for you to get there from here. How To Pitch and Promote Your Own Songs, This Business of Music, This Business of Artist Management, and there’s a great one on Internet Marketing – I’m thinking it’s called the Guide to Internet Marketing. There are lots of great books out there – just read as much as you can until you find a book that really hits home for you.
And down to the basics – I think every artist needs a book called The Artist’s Way. Whether you are working in the realm of ‘spiritual’ music or simply a creative musician, this book is a must-read, and a must-do. It combines reading with living, it is practical, it is tough and challenging and worth every minute of extra time you have to devote to it. For artists in worship ministries, The Heart of the Artist is a great book. I haven’t made it all the way through it yet, but I know lots of churches use it in their praise teams as a Bible study. I am sure there are similar books out there to help artists in other genres of music as well.
Question: What are your thoughts on the Internet? It's probably made your job of promoting yourself a little easier in a lot of ways, but do you worry about copyright at all? What are your thoughts on the whole peer-to-peer music sharing phenomenon that's going on these days?
The internet is a great tool. It is a great way to meet people you might never physically meet who might really get a lot out of your music and enjoy what you have to offer. It is easy to spend ALL of your time online, marketing yourself in cyberspace. For some artists and some bands that is probably the way to go. My particular art and talent lends itself as well or more so to the face-to-face interaction of performing my music for people. So internet is a help to get me in front of people, not a replacement for that facet of a performance career. Now as a songwriter, the internet is a great tool to pitch your songs to people you can’t physically go and visit. It is a great way to collaborate and co-write – I don’t do a lot of co-writing, but I know of several songwriting teams that only meet a couple times a year face to face, if at all. And there are some phenomenal promoters and friends of the music industry that I have met online who have helped me get bookings without me even having to ask. They are looking for good music – if you offer them good music, you are helping them out and making their job easier!
I don’t really worry about copyright – everything I put on the internet is protected by the Library of Congress. A reputable site will ask you if you have copyright protection and if you hold all the licenses to the music you want to place with them. If they don’t ask – I would hesitate to offer them any of your music. Some sites even want their artists to sign a written permission and fax or mail it back so they have documentation that you are permitting them to give your songs promotion and airplay. This is a very good thing!
I’m not 100% sure what is covered under ‘peer to peer’ music sharing, but I think music is made to be shared. In God’s eyes, we are all equal. He looks down and we look like we’re all on level ground from His perspective. It is only in our eyes that one person is way up here musically and another person is way down there – I think the internet keeps us humble and hopeful as musicians. We see more than ever how much great music is out there, and yet we are also honored to be a part of that and inspired to improve our craft even more to honor others whose talents are motivating us to keep going. I think the internet has done a lot for independent artists especially. I don’t know what to say about the loss of CD sales due to downloading – maybe we are just in a transitional period where in the next few years there will be a new e-commerce environment up and running that will support musicians for the art they make financially. I sure hope so. We don’t need the big record companies as much as we think. We just need a supportive audience, a willingness to work hard, and vehicles to get seen and heard and known. And the internet helps us do it, and affordably, with avenues we’ve never had available to us before as independent artists. So, all things weighed in, I am all for it.
Question: I'd like to get a little more insight into how you actually write your songs, Shannon. Do you start with the music or the lyrics? Which one do you prefer to start with and why?
Most of the time songs come with both melody and a lyric idea, or hook, in tow. There is a great movie called 'Grace of My Heart' that I think every songwriter should watch. It's kind of old and may be hard to find, but it's to songwriting what 'Chariots of Fire' is to ministry minded-ness....required viewing. In the movie, the songwriter simply observes life, taking it in, letting it sift and gel, and experiencing what is there to be experienced at the body, mind, emotion, heart and spirit level. After a while (or sometimes right away!) a song appears. Some people respond to their lives by writing computer programs. Others respond by going into politics or cooking or by raising a family. Songwriters respond to and interact with their lives, and the lives of those around them, by writing songs. I've written songs since I was 8 years old. It's just my way - sort of like breathing. And while I could probably talk very intelligently on rhyme and meter and verse/chorus/melodic construction, how-to's and how-not-to's, I will confess that none of those things are in my head or heart when I write. I am caught up in the joy of creation - amazed that for a little while I can tap into the Power that created everything through my little efforts to write a song. And I think that for songwriters who are learning their craft, both elements need to be there - education and heart. But all the education in the world is no substitute for simply being a student of life. I've even heard it said that a good songwriter is really a good actor or actress - able to put themselves into other people's shoes, experience life first- and second-hand, and then communicate their experiences and understandings clearly and movingly with their audience. I think it is very true!
Question: You mentioned Writer's Block in an earlier answer. What do you do when you experience Writer's Block? How do you go about overcoming it? Any hints for other songwriters?
Writer's block is an interesting animal, but I experience it a little differently than most of the songwriting textbooks might describe. I see my heart & mind like a well - it gets filled up, emptied out, filled up, emptied out. Sometimes as a songwriter we get full of images and experiences and emotions and we write songs to capture and preserve what we've felt and seen. Then we are empty and need to fill up our well again. This isn't some kind of rocket science I created - if your readers want to read more about it tell them to buy a book called The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron. It is an amazing study in the life of a creative person - in this case, into the life of the one reading it as well as the author. Sometimes I'm supposed to be writing songs - that is what it takes to keep my ministry and career moving ahead. Sometimes other things need my attention and it is not the time to write songs. Now, there is such a thing as writer's block that is just fear. That kind of writer's block is something I have experienced from time to time - when I hit a plateau in my growth and am afraid I've done the best work I can do and don't trust there is still growth and new fresh opportunity up ahead. When I feel fear, I shut down and either can't or am scared to create. There are only two ways to handle this - either rest or push through it. Both approaches work, and a combination strategy is probably best. Johnny Rzeznik put it so well - 'Writer's block isn't when you can't write. It's when everything you write (he uses another word) doesn't sound good to you.' That's a tough time every creative person goes through, but one thing life teaches us is that everything passes in time - we have seasons on the outside and seasons on the inside. Writer's block and creative spurts are just seasons in our creative lives.
Question: What's in store for you in the future, Shannon? Where are you next playing? Where can people get your CD and find out more about your music and performance schedule?
http://www.shannoncutts.com/ is the best place to find out all about me and what's happening with the music and ministry God has given me. This month we are shooting my live performance video and recording a live CD of the concert. In the next month my band and I play Blessfest 2003 in Houston, and then my team begins preparations to shoot my concept video of the song Modern Day Eve from my CD of the same name. In June, I head to Florida to play Indiefest 2003, then Costa Rica for a month-long missions trip and mini-tour. In August I am off to Budapest/Croatia for a missions trip. We have a lot of exciting things happening. This year I launched Key To Life: Unlocking the Door to Hope, which is a music-based youth and family event around the subject of eating disorders - anorexia, bulimia and compulsive overeating. I use music as one of many examples of a 'key to life' - something that matters more to a victim of an eating disorder than holding onto their disease. I share songs with event participants to encourage them to find their own 'key to life' and cling to that as proof of their preciousness, uniqueness, and purpose in this life and then use this proof to find the courage to heal and recover. It is a very powerful ministry I am really excited about, and thus far response has been incredibly positive. There is more information about this program, Lift Me Up Ministries, my solo music ministry and my band, and the CD Donation Program at http://www.shannoncutts.com/.
You can find Shannon's official site HERE.